Bluebells as weeds
Although the native English bluebell and the larger Spanish bluebell are often grown in gardens, they can multiply and become a nuisance, requiring control. Spanish bluebells can also hybridise with the native form so are best controlled in gardens close to woodlands where the English bluebell is growing.
Latin name Hyacinthoides non-scripta; H. hispanica; H. × massartiana
Areas affected Beds, borders and uncultivated areas, especially woodland gardens
Main causes Bulbous plants that spread by seed or bulbs
Timing Seen early spring to mid-summer; treat when seen
What are the species of bluebells?
While many gardeners welcome the native bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) in their gardens, it can become a nuisance. The larger Spanish bluebell (H. hispanica) is also pretty, but can become a problem too, not just because of its spreading habit, but also due to its ability to hybridise with the native English form. The hybrid forms could potentially oust the natives and we advise against growing Spanish bluebells in rural gardens.
English, Spanish and hybrid bluebells provide an early source of nectar for butterflies, bees and hoverflies. Although beneficial to pollinators and considered attractive by many gardeners, in some instances gardeners may wish to remove or restrict the spread of bluebells. This page looks at options for gardeners when bluebells are becoming a problem.
The difference between English and Spanish bluebells
Flowers of native bluebells are narrowly bell-shaped, with straight-sided petals, deeply curled back at the tips. The majority of flowers droop from one side of the stem. The anthers are creamy-white and the leaves narrow, usually between 0.7-1.5cm wide (about ¼-¾in), although occasionally up to 2cm (¾in).
Spanish bluebell and hybrid
The bell-shaped flowers of Spanish bluebells and the hybrids between this and the English (known as H. × massartiana) open more widely than on English bluebells, with the petal tips just flaring outwards or curling back only slightly. Some flowers may droop from one side, but most are arranged all around the stem and held more erect. The anthers of Spanish and hybrid bluebells are usually pale to dark blue, and the leaves are wider, up to 3-3.5cm (about 1¼in) across.
Bluebells can spread rapidly. They seed freely and often hybridize when grown together.
The bulbs can also persist in garden compost heaps.
The RHS believes that avoiding pests, diseases and weeds by good practice in cultivation methods, cultivar selection, garden hygiene and encouraging or introducing natural enemies, should be the first line of control. If chemical controls are used, they should be used only in a minimal and highly targeted manner.
It is best to dig out bluebells while they are in leaf, as the bulbs are almost impossible to find when the plants are dormant:
- Loosen soil around the bulbs to a good depth and remove all the bulbs and underground parts
- Where shoots appear from among clumps of low-growing garden plants, carefully insert a garden fork to its full depth close to the shoot. Work the handle of the fork to loosen the bulb then, grasping the shoot, gently ease the bulb out of the earth
- Choose moist soil conditions to carry this out and firm in disturbed garden plants
Caution: do not dispose of bulbs by adding them to the garden compost heap and never discard unwanted bulbs in the countryside. Consign them to a black plastic sack and leave for a year before composting.
Bluebells are strongly resistant to weedkillers and it appears that no garden weedkiller will kill them or even check their growth.
Other ways of spreading?
Bluebells are not generally considered to produce runners, although it is sometimes stated on websites and in books (e.g. Grey’s Hardy Bulbs notes that the bulbs are "more or less stoloniferous"). However, if you dig up some bulbs in autumn/winter you may see some bulbs with small offsets, which are unlikely to be actual stolons or runners. It may be that, on occasions, stolons are produced if the bulb is planted too deep or is encouraged to grow under particular conditions.
The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.